Julie Exline recounts her experience of learning to surf. Not an easy task for anyone, Julie had the extra difficulty of having to work around some physical limitations. She, however, had an exceptional teacher who provided, not only technical training, but patient encouragement.
Given my limited upper body strength and a decided lack of flexibility in my neck and back, I found it very hard to maintain the surfer position required for paddling. When my instructor saw this obvious problem, she quietly offered me a gift of grace: She gently but firmly hooked her foot on my board and began to tow me out into the waves.
OK, I’ll admit that this was humbling for me. It was so painfully apparent that I needed the help. I couldn’t do it on my own. I came so close to being overtaken by a dark storm cloud of shame, which would have tainted the whole experience. But instead, I was presented with a lifeline for my emotions, a balm that soothed me and my bruised ego: It was my instructor’s positive attitude.
Although she would have been perfectly justified in grumbling, rolling her eyes, or at least giving me a heavy sigh, she did none of these things. Instead, she presented the situation as though towing me around was just exactly what she wanted to do. Although I don’t remember her specific words, this is the message that she conveyed to me: “This is great! I need some more practice doing this. And I’ll get a good workout.”
Because of the grace that my instructor offered me, I didn’t have to struggle through the waves alone. I was able to put my head down periodically and rest. I didn’t have to hold my body up in an uncomfortable position for too long, and I didn’t have to waste precious time and energy with laborious, inefficient paddling.
My instructor’s consistent encouragement and support steadied me throughout my surfing adventure. When I missed a wave or wiped out, she was gentle and patient in response. She didn’t berate me for my errors, nor did she show a trace of frustration with me or my screw-ups. She would simply watch for the next decent wave, give my board a little push, and then coach me through the steps to stand up.
All that I had in my glass were a few drops of accomplishment. But she chose to focus on the sweetness of those drops, not on how comically small they were or how much of the glass remained empty. And because of her emphasis on what I had achieved, I was able to join her in celebrating my successes, modest as they were.”
Julie J. Exline Ph.D.
The Purpose of Encouragement
As you can see encouragement can turn an embarrassing situation into a cause to celebrate. An expression of affirmation through language or other symbolic representations can give strength to another person who feels limited, justifiably or not. Courage reduces fear, perseverance combats a desire to give up, confidence addresses low self-efficacy, inspiration resolves a lack of motivation or creativity, and hope decreases pessimism about the future; all goals that the Apostles would have been striving for with their letters and visits to the first Christian churches who often struggled with the rejection of their former synagogues, friends and business associates. This article speculates on where the first disciples traveled to spread the Good News.
Alfred Adler (1956), arguably the first psychologist to theorize on encouragement, considered encouragement a core feature of human development. A broad definition commonly cited by Adlerian scholars says, “encouragement is the process of facilitating the development of a persons’ inner resources and courage toward positive movement”. (Think spiritual faith and Holy Spirit as two of those inner resources.)
Dreikurs (1971) considered the ability to encourage others as the single most important attribute in getting along with other people.
Grounded in humanistic psychology, the purpose of encouragement embraced by Adlerian scholars was to enhance the core features of a fully functioning person: a positive view of oneself, a positive view of others, being open to experiences, and a sense of belonging to others. A measure for children was also developed that focused on three areas of encouragement: a positive view of the self, a sense of belonging, and the courage to be imperfect. Are these not characteristics strongly supported by Jesus’ words and actions? Once again Christianity and science coincide. See (Cosmos + Life + Science) = God for other areas of commonality.
Also, useful, our encouragement to others can include a suggestion to replace negative self-talk (inner dialogue) with a positive focus on accomplishments. In their book Words Can Change Your Life, Newberg and Waldman tell us that positive self-talk improves attentiveness, autonomy, confidence, and work performance. On the other hand, negative self-talk can stimulate eating disorders, passivity, insomnia, agoraphobia, compulsive gambling, sexual dysfunction, low self-esteem and depression. It can make you quite your job in a self-destructive way, and it can drive you to treating your family with disdain.
The importance of our inner thoughts is significant.
The Greater Impact of Your Words
The Apostle Paul exhorts Christians to encourage one another, particularly those who are disheartened (1 Thessalonians 5:11-15). Encouragement is more beneficial and necessary for some people than for others.
There is some preliminary evidence suggesting that encouragement might be relatively more important to the success and well-being of women, minority groups, and some non-Western cultures. Women, racial minority and impoverished individuals who routinely face discrimination might rely more on positive social messages from significant others to build their self-confidence.
individuals from non-Western collectivistic cultures such as in Eastern Asia, might define themselves more strongly in terms of their relationships with others and may, therefore, be more open to the influence of encouragement provided from significant others.
Praise vs. Encouragement
Although encouragement can be expressed through praise and persuasion, it is not the same. Praise refers to communicating positive evaluations of another person’s characteristics, performance, or products. Although, like encouragement, praise involves the expression of affirmation, praise may not necessarily be intended to instill courage, perseverance, confidence, inspiration, or hope in another person.
For example, praise that is only offered as a form of congratulations would not be considered encouragement. Moreover, praise can be offered merely as feedback for something done in the past (e.g., “Good job on the presentation!”), whereas encouragement always has a present or future orientation. Even when a statement of encouragement refers to a past achievement, the ultimate goal of encouragement is to serve as a stimulus that either strengthens or develops positive motivation, cognitions, emotions, or behavior.
To make it easy to remember, think of praise as for past actions and encouragement as for future actions.
We are to follow the examples of Christ and the apostles to encourage others, especially in their faith. It costs us nothing to speak a few words of support and what an amazing gift it is.
As Dr. Julie Exline tells us, “When we ‘en-courage,’ it’s as though we actually infuse courage into another person. It can provide people with strength to look ahead, move forward, and reach for the next goal. The whole emotional tone of a tough situation can be transformed through encouragement. Somehow things seem a little brighter.”
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So, when they were sent off, they came to Antioch. Having gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter.When they had read it, they rejoiced over the encouragement. (Acts 15:30-31)
In the day that I called, you answered me. You encouraged me with strength in my soul. (Psalm 138:3)
Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged the brothers with many words and strengthened them. (Acts 15:32)
When he had gone through those parts, and had encouraged them with many words, he came into Greece. (Acts 20:2)
For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that through perseverance and through encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Now the God of perseverance and of encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:4-6)
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord an encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. (Acts 9:31) This is after Paul’s conversion
And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak be patient with everyone. (1 Thes 5:14)